Cheese Making through the Ages

Cheese Making through the Ages

I love cheese.  So when I came across a reference to cheese during my research into Robert the Mason, I kept it in my mind’s “of interest” tray to come back to later.

In the 12th century, Geoffrey de Gorham, who was abbot of St Albans from 1119 to 1146, assigned to the monastery’s kitchen all of the cheeses from the Abbey’s demesnes of (St Paul’s) Walden, Abbot’s Langley and Sandridge (all in Hertfordshire). [1] It seems likely, as cheese was specifically mentioned in the Gesta abbatum, it had a high priority for the diet of the monks.

What is cheese? It is made from milk, either from a cow, sheep, goat, camel or any other kind of mammal. All milk contains five basic components: water, lactose (milk sugar), fat, protein (casein and whey) and minerals. Milk is transformed into cheese by a process with three objectives: to expel water, to de-mineralize the casein with bacterial acids, and to add salt. This applies to all cheeses. The end product is reached by a process involving several steps, which can be varied to give us different types of cheese. [2]

People have made and enjoyed cheese for a long time. There is archaeological evidence that Neolithic people made cheese as early as 5,500 BC, at the time of the transition from nomadism to agriculture. Archaeologists working at ancient cattle-rearing sites in what is now Poland had found pieces of ceramic vessels riddled with holes, which look like they could have been early cheese strainers. The molecules preserved in the pores of these vessels were biochemically analysed, showing that the molecules came from milk fats, i.e. very likely some form of cheese. It has been suggested that Neolithic people might have curdled their milk with bacteria found in nature, resulting in a clumpy version of modern mozzarella. It is believed that these early farming communities developed cheese making quite soon after switching to agriculture. At this stage, humans were still lactose intolerant. However, compared to milk, cheese contains less lactose and is more easily digestible. It has been suggested that it was at the same time as middle Europeans started making cheese that the genetic mutation began, which allows humans of European ancestry to tolerate lactose. Of course, cheese is also easier to transport and keeps longer than fresh milk. [3]

The neolithic finds were too degraded to allow the researchers any further analysis.  However, in the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China, mummies with Eurasian features from the Bronze Age were found, which have been dated to between 1980 and 1450 BC.  Around their necks, there were strange pieces of yellow matter of approx. 1 to 2 sm diameter.  These were analysed by the chemist Andrej Shevchenko of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, who was able to isolate proteins characteristic of cheese in the samples.  Their analysis allowed the researchers to recreate the cheese, with a result similar to kefir.  For kefir, bacteria and yeast are added to the milk and this mixture is then fermented.  This process does not involve any enzyme – rennet, which is used for instance in present-day Cheddar.  Rennet is found in the guts of ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc), so no animals needed to be slaughtered, obviously a big advantage.  This kefir cheese contains hardly any lactose and could therefore be safely eaten by the people, who would still have been largely lactose intolerant. [4] I remember Kefir very well from Germany, where you can get it in the dairy section of every supermarket.  Unfortunately here in Australia, it seems to be virtually unknown.

During the Roman Empire, cheese was a staple and a typical army food, along with bacon and vinegar. While people probably made cheese already long before the Romans in all the areas covered by their vast empire, the Roman influence can be deducted from the words used for cheese: From the Latin caesus we get Käse, Kaas, queso etc.; from the Latin word forma for a cheese mould we get fromage, formaggio etc.

Some of the countries which come to mind as prominent cheese makers and exporters today, like France, Italy and Switzerland, have had a long tradition in this field, at least since the 1500s. [5] For many of the cheeses we know today, we find their first record during the Middle Ages or early modern era: Gorgonzola in 897, Roquefort in 1070, Cheddar in 1500, Parmesan in 1579 etc. It is important to remember that these dates are only the first record, the cheese varieties would have been around for much longer.

Cheese Making through the Ages

Medieval Cheese Making

During the Middle Ages in England, cheese was available in four main varieties: hard (a cheddar type), soft (a cream cheese), green cheese (a very new soft cheese) and ‘spermyse’ (cream cheese flavoured with herbs). [6]

Medieval feudal estates, whether owned by some nobleman or the church, relied on the supply of locally produced food. This was because transport over long distances was limited due to problems in keeping fresh produce cool. Food produced in summer needed to be preserved for use over the rest of the year. Fermenting and salting were the most effective methods of preservation, which both play an important role in cheese making. Feudal estates were self-contained communities, where professional cheese makers, mostly women, were highly respected for their skills. Their knowledge and recipes were handed down through generations, which explains why we have a vast variety of different cheeses found today. [7]

As the above text from the Gesta abbatum indicates, cheese played an important part in monastic houses. The Bendictine order, to which St Albans belonged, was very strict in prohibiting speaking at various times, including during meals. To be able to communicate, the monks developed a sign language. Two sets of lists of such signs were found from Cluny, a prominent Benedictine house. It is interesting that the lists start with signs for food. This might have a practical reason, as the monks had to observe silence during meals, but beyond doubt also indicates how important food was for them and how much they enjoyed it. Bread is at number 1 on the list, followed by signs for beans, eggs, and various types of fish. Cheese appears fairly early on, at number 17 (out of 118): “For the sign of cheese bring together both hands diagonally, as if pressing cheese.” [8]

Both of the lists from Cluny date from the late 11th century, so it is likely that a similar sign language would have been used by the monks at St Albans, when Abbot Geoffrey assigned the cheese for his kitchen in the first half of the 12th century.

Cheese Making through the Ages

Making Cheese

The Gesta abbatum does not say from what kind of milk the cheese for St Albans Abbey is made, but in the early 12th century, it seems most likely that it was sheep’s milk, as this was the main raw ingredient for cheese in the earlier Middle Ages. It was only in the 14th century that cow’s milk had largely replaced sheep’s milk. By then, the wool industry was experiencing problems, with their exports to continental Europe being seriously affected by the 100 Years’ War. Added to this, there was in the late 13th and 14th century a series of outbreaks of disease devastating English sheep flocks. [9] Disease also affected St Albans, as the Chronicle of St. Albans tells us, that “the scourge swept the countryside and left the folds empty two years later”. It also “suggests that the infection was brought by imported Spanish sheep”. [10]

Monastic and especially Benedictine houses were foremost in making cheese production more commercially orientated, as they were able to sell surplus stock. However, it is not clear whether St Albans Abbey sold some of its cheese, as the Gesta abbatum only states that the cheese was for the kitchen of the monastery. [11]

Irrespective of whether it was sheep’s milk or cow’s milk cheese, Hertfordshire was one of the areas with the most intensive pastoral regime in medieval England. This was not so much due to its superior grasslands and was rather due to the commercial opportunities of supplying London. Hertfordshire was one of the main suppliers of dairy products, predominantly cheese and butter. It would be rather unlikely that a major landowner like St Albans Abbey would not have taken part in such a lucrative trade. It has been said that the extant sources “remain largely coy about its details”. [12] Maybe the Gesta abbatum only mentioning the cheese for the monks’ kitchen is one of these instances of coyness.

In the later Middle Ages, Hertfordshire and towns like St Albans continued their commercial success in supplying the fast growing London market, however, they began to be outperformed by more dynamic areas like East Anglia. [13] East Anglia became one of the most important cheese producing areas in England, and were the chief supplier of cheese to the English army. [14] Indeed the cheese from the East Anglian counties of Essex and Suffolk became famous and was produced in enormous round ‘weys’ weighing several hundred pounds. [15]

Dairy industry included making cheese and making butter, but this also brought certain risks. In 1477, an Italian, Pantaleone da Confienza, published Summa lacticiniorum (Treatise on Dairy Foods). He focussed on cheese and thought that making butter was to the detriment of good cheese. His examples for the misuse of good milk are English and German cheeses, which he found too crumbly. [16] Crumbly or not, Italian cheeses have enjoyed world-wide favour for a long time, as for example an Arab cook book from the 14th century includes two recipes which include Sicilian cheese. [17]

In German, there is a saying, often quoted by my mum, that “cheese locks the stomach”. This reflects the medieval wisdom that cheese should be eaten after meat at the end of a meal, as long as it was not too aged or too dry, because “cheese, taken after a meal, makes food descend to the bottom of the stomach where digestion is primarily active, as all those versed in the art of medicine know full well.” [18]

I would like to imagine the monks in St Albans finishing their silent meal with a nice piece of cheese from St Paul’s Walden, Abbot’s Langley or Sandridge by “bringing together both hands diagonally, as if pressing cheese”.

While Hertfordshire may not immediately come to mind when thinking of cheese today, I was glad to see that, since 2003, cheese is again being made in Hertfordshire, with Wobbly Bottom Farm near Hitchin producing goat’s milk cheese.

Notes and References:

1. Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani, a Thoma Walsingham, regnante Ricardo Secundo, ejusdem ecclesiæ præcentore, compilata, ed.by Henry Thomas Riley. Vol I, A.D.793-1290. London, 1867, p.74

2. Thompson, A., ‘The Strange History of Cheese’, Live Science (28 May 2007). URL:  http://www.livescience.com/4468-strange-history-cheese.html [last accessed 23 July 2015]

3. Subbaraman, N., ‘Art of cheese-making is 7,500 years old’, Nature (12 Dec. 2012). URL: http://www.nature.com/news/art-of-cheese-making-is-7-500-years-old-1.12020 [last accessed 23 July 2015]; Salque, M., et al, ‘Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe’, Nature, Vol.493, Issue 7433 (Jan. 2013), pp.522-525; and Hotz, R.L., ‘Europe’s First Cattle Farmers Quickly Added Cheese to Menu’, The Wall Street Journal (12 Dec 2012). URL: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324481204578175372509354246.html [last accessed 13 Dec. 2012]

4.  Powell, E.A., ‘Secrets of Bronze Age Cheese Makers’, Archaeology (8 April 2014).  URL:  http://archaeology.org/issues/132-1405/trenches/1971-china-taklamakan-mummies-earliest-cheese [last accessed 30 July 2015]; Frisch, F., ‘Researchers reconstruct a cheese recipe from the Early Bronze Age’, Phys Org (12 March 2014).  URL: http://phys.org/news/2014-03-reconstruct-cheese-recipe-early-bronze.html [last accessed 30 July 2015]; and Ghose, T., ‘Mummies’ Milk: World’s Oldest Cheese Found in China’, Live Science (28 Feb.  2014). URL:  http://www.livescience.com/43782-mummies-have-oldest-cheese.html [last accessed 30 July 2015]

5. Dalby, A., Cheese: A Global History. Reaktion Books, 2009, pp.44-45

6. Hammond, P., Food & Feast in Medieval England. Sutton Publishing, 2005 (originally published in 1993), p.39

7. Fox, P.F., Fundamentals of Cheese Science. Springer Science & Business Media, 2000, pp.3-4

8. Ambrose, K., ‘A Medieval Food List from the Monastery of Cluny’, Gastronomica, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 14-20

9. Kindstedt, P., Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012, pp.139-146

10. Chron. Monasterii S. Albani, iii, J. de Trokelowe (Rolls Ser.), 37–38, quoted in: ‘Medieval agriculture’, in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 4, ed. Elizabeth Crittall (London, 1959), pp. 7-42. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol4/pp7-42 [last accessed 26 July 2015]

11.  Kindstedt, P.

12. Bailey, M., ‘The economy of towns and markets, 1100 to 1300’, in: A County of Small Towns, ed. by Terry Slater & Nigel Goose. Hertfordshire Publications, 2008, p.53

13. Ibid., p.61

14. Kindstedt, P.

15. Hammond, P., op.cit.

16. Montanari, M. and Archer Brombert, B., Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table. Columbia University Press, 2015, pp.100-101

17. Perry, C., ‘Sicilian Cheese in Medieval Arab Recipes’, Gastronomica, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2001), pp. 76-77

18. Regime tresutile, p.85, quoted in: Scully, T., The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Boydell Press, 2005, p.134

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